Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Is Slaven Bilic just the latest Premiership manager to come under media fire or are West Ham's problems more fundamental

The let’s get a Premiership manager sacked merrygo round appears to have stopped at West Ham manager Slaven Bilic’s door.

Previously, there was a sustained effort to get Arsenal boss, Arsene Wenger, removed from his position but the wily Frenchman seems to have seen off the threat.

It really does seem to be something of a media game, trying to fuel support for the sacking of one manager after another. In defence of the media, though, there is the no smoke without fire argument, namely that someone must be stoking the rumours behind the scenes. Maybe agents, owners of clubs, who knows?

In the West Ham case, it is notable that when the club starts having a bad run on the pitch, the rumours begin with certain possible names for replacement manager being touted in the press.

The basis for trying to undermine managers is pretty vapid. Wenger’s demise would be considered a valuable scalp but the Arsenal manager is used to such conjecture.

Memorably last year, the doom merchants were trying to portray the season as a disaster. Wenger was asked what the prospects were for qualifying for the European Champions League. The answer, that the club had achieved that goal 17 seasons in succession under his stewardship and would probably do so again. In the event they qualified, snatching the runners up position in the Premiership from arch rivals Spurs.

There is no doubt some discontent among the fans at lack of silverware at Arsenal over recent years but those expectations have grown ironically due to the success of Wenger. Arsenal fans maybe should heed what has happened to Manchester United since the retirement of Alex Ferguson. The same could quite easily happen to the Gunners.

At West Ham, expectations were raised by Bilic’s first and the final season at the old Boleynb ground. The team played some fine attacking football and but for falling at the final hurdles, they could have been in the Champions league places. However, given the inability over the past two seasons to even get past the qualifying rounds of the Europa League, this would no doubt have been a bridge too far.

West Ham has never been a club short on high, or as previous manager Sam Allardyce preferred to put it unrealistic expectations. West Ham supporters are only half joking when they say the club won the World Cup in 1966.

Those expectations were sky high going into the new London Stadium. Bilic, though, was realistic from the off, pointing out that moving into a big ground does not automatically make you a big club. It takes time and money to move from being a medium club to become a big team.

The owners of West Ham do seem to share this view, though at times get a bit impatient. They were probably expecting some teething problems with the new ground, though having recruited heavily in the summer – with a view to a sustained run in the Europa League – were no doubt a little peeved to see the club crash out in the qualifiers.
That said, given the way things have gone since, West Ham must be pleased they did exit Europe when they did, that extra strain could see the side right down in the relegation swamp.

The team has been inconsistent both at home and away. The Dimitri Payet saga did not help matters in the first half of the season.

However, Bilic dealt with the Frenchman well, not only getting £25 million back on the player but also using the outcry against his “strike” methods to galvanise the rest of the team to react on the pitch.

The form of the team, though, has at best been sporadic this season, getting thumped by the big teams at the London stadium, whilst showing variable form against the lesser lights.
The defence has been a major problem all season. It was a fundamental mistake last summer to not resolve the problems at right back. The position continues to be makeshift.

The manager  seems to lack confidence in Sam Byram, who was brought in from Leeds last year but has never been given a run in the side to really show what he can do.

Strikers have also been a problem with Andy Carroll having his perennial injury problems, whilst new siging Andre Ayew, has shown great promise but also been dogged by injury.

Most disappointing for fans has been a failure to bring through some of the clubs younger players. 17 year old Reece Oxford, who made such a sensational start last season, has hardly featured, being sent out on loan in January to Reading.

Promising young strikers Martin Samuelsen and Tony Martinez have followed similar paths.

Bilic said at the end of last season that players from the successful under 21 side would be around the first team squad or out on loan this season. Sadly, precious few have figured with the first team.

In the case of Oxford, this has been all the more difficult to fathom, given the exit of central striker James Tompkins to Crystal Palace last summer and some of the frankly at times comical defending that has gone on from those who have worn the shirt.

The purchase of Jose Fonte for £8 million in January has also raised some eyebrows as the former Southampton centre half has struggled to settle.

There has also been some discontent growing toward the man they call Mr West Ham, captain Mark Noble. The skipper has put in some indifferent displays this season, especially in comparison to his inspirational form last. There have been times when fans have doubted Noble worth his place, with others seemingly sidelined to make room for the skipper.

This most notably happened when Cheikou Kouyate returned from the Africa Nations Cup in February. Noble had been playing alongside the outstanding Pedro Obiang.  Byram had put in a couple of decent performances at right back. Many felt on form, if someone had to make way for Kouyate, it should be Noble in midfield. Yet, in the event Byram was replaced, with Kouyate, who then struggled for a number of games to play out of position at right back. More recently, Bilic seems to have bitten the bullet on Noble, leaving his skipper on the bench and substituting him.

So there are criticisms to be made of the way things have gone at West Ham this season but when all is said and done things could be a lot worse. The concern of the owners is understandable, with the club in Premiership no mans land – a couple of wins would put them in the top nine, a couple of losses could see the side dragged into the relegation battle.

What is for sure is that at this stage of the season the club needs to pull together in the same effective way that it did following the Payet drama. Attacking the manager who remains popular with players and fans alike is unlikely to achieve the results needed on the pitch.

Moving forward the club will have questions for the manager about where he sees things going. The owners clearly expect West Ham to be a top six, if not top four club in the foreseeable future. Bilic can no doubt deliver that ambition, if he is given the tools to do the job. This will mean the owners being prepared to dig deep in their pockets.

The club will need to recruit well in the summer, resolving the defensive and striking issues. But it should also look to start using some of the up and coming youngsters – they need to be given a chance at some stage. The early Europa League exist rather stymied Bilic’s plans to provide such experience but other ways need to be found.

Loath as many at West Ham maybe to do it, they could do a lot worse than learn some lessons from Spurs when it comes to conjuring the trick of bringing through the clubs own youngsters, whilst building a successful Premiership challenging side.

published Morning Star - 22/4/2017

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